Victoriana

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My book Victoriana is available now from Castle Imprint. Via the publisher’s website:

Our latest title, Victoriana: Arts, Letters, and Curiosities of the Nineteenth Century, is currently on sale in hardcover at all major retailers including Amazon in the USAUK, and CanadaBarnes & Noble in the US; Blackwell’s in the UK; and independent booksellers everywhere.

From the jacket copy:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

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Knocking at the Gate

Writing in the New Republic, Colin Dickey describes the influence of Thomas De Quincey’s 1823 essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” as it relates to the suspense genre:

There’s a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate film, Frenzy, when the murderer Robert Rusk, a serial sexual predator, finds himself in a bit of a bind. Having just loaded the corpse of the hero’s girlfriend onto a truck carrying sacks of potatoes, Rusk realizes he’s left some incriminating evidence on the body. He climbs back up to retrieve it, but the truck begins moving, taking him further from London and into the country. As Rusk struggles to retrieve his tie-pin from his victim’s hand, he discovers rigor mortis has set in and he’s forced to break her fingers to get it free. It’s an elaborate, perversely comic scene in which a loathsome monster is strangely empathetic: Like any workaday slob, he’s made a small mistake in his job, and fixing it has turned into an increasingly complex comedy of errors. Who couldn’t sympathize with him? This is one of the great hallmarks of Hitchcockian suspense: The moment when, against all your instincts, you find yourself developing some measure of sympathy with the Devil.

More than a hundred years before Hitchcock began making films, Thomas De Quincey first pegged this affect in an 1823 essay, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth.” The essay turns on the moment when Macbeth is in the process murdering King Duncan. Macbeth is momentarily disturbed by MacDuff’s knocking at the gate, and he panics that his crime might be discovered. Why, when we know Macbeth’s crime to be immoral, do we switch allegiance, ever so momentarily, from the victims to the murderers?

De Quincey had no language available in the canon of Shakespearean criticism to describe how such a moment engendered “a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity,” it fell to him to invent it. “Murder, in ordinary cases, where the sympathy is wholly directed to the case of the murdered person,” he reasons, “is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror; and for this reason that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” This attitude to primal panic would never “suit the purposes of the poet.” What, then, must a poet do to elevate such a scene to high art? The only option: “He must throw the interest on the murderer.”

De Quincey and his subsequent essay “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” are treated at length in a chapter on the origins of the mystery genre in my new book Victoriana.

Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelites

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Kirsty Stonell Walker connects two of my favorite subjects: Agatha Christie and the Pre-Raphaelite artists:

At first glance, you wouldn’t think Agatha Christie had any relevance in a conversation about Victorian art. A Golden Age queen, her novels are decidedly modern, reflecting a world after first one then another world war, and filled with skittish women, world-weary men, and murders galore. However, the more you read her novels, the more her Victorian roots show. Take for example, the short story ‘Miss Marple tells a Story’, where Miss Jane Marple tells her nephew Raymond (a novelist) and his girlfriend Joan (a modern artist) all about how she solved a murder that was brought to her by her solicitor and the accused man (husband of the deceased). I won’t spoil the plot for you, but when Miss Marple wants to explain how she isn’t as ‘up-to-date’ as her companions she says ‘I am hopelessly Victorian. I admire Mr Alma Tadema and Mr Frederick Leighton and I suppose to you they are hopelessly vieux jeu.’ Miss Marple is the archetypal maiden aunt, born around the 1870s (as she appears to be a woman of 50-60 in her first appearance in 1927, and grows older up to the 1950s). Jane Marple expresses many examples of what it meant to be a Victorian, for example in ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, Miss Marple says ‘When I was a girl Inspector, nobody ever mentioned the word stomach’, together with admonishments that a lady would never be over-emotional in public. I especially love her inability to talk frankly about what litmus paper is used for, in ‘The Blue Geranium’, even though she knows from experience of being a nurse. She is shrewd but always finds a way of being delicate about matters of bodily fluids.

The entire post is wonderful with lots of references picked out of various novels and a gallery of Christie paperback covers with Pre-Raphaelite influences.

Victoriana, Coming Soon

My second book, Victoriana, will be published later this month by Castle Imprint. The official release date is May 21. From the Castle Imprint website:

The reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901 coincided with an unprecedented flourishing of invention, industry, and creativity within her realm. This volume offers a general introduction to the arts and letters of nineteenth century Britain with authoritative analysis. Historian Nick Louras describes a civilization involved in a process of renewal, whereby historical forms and traditions were drawn into a culture of innovation, to create a society that was both rooted and forward-looking, traditional and vital. He examines the influence of Charles Dickens, the Pre-Raphaelites, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Thomas De Quincey, and the Queen herself to reconstruct that society for the reader.

A Portrait of Prince Albert

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The above daguerreotype print of Prince Albert was made on March 5, 1842. From the website of the Royal Collection Trust:

This is the first known photograph to have survived of a member of the British royal family. Prince Albert visited William Constable’s studio in Brighton, while the court was residing at the Royal Pavilion, and had a portrait taken. This daguerreotype was delivered to the Queen a few days later. In her journal entry of the 6th of March Queen Victoria commented ‘Saw the photographs which are quite good’.

The print has faded significantly over the years but is strangely dramatic for that. Albert’s face comes out of the darkness in all poise and dignity.

The Waterhouse Muse

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Study for Lamia, by John William Waterhouse, 1904-1905

John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.

Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.

For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”

The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.

The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.

We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”

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La Belle Dame sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
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Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse, 1894
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Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse, 1896
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The Soul of the Rose, by John William Waterhouse, 1908
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The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse, 1914

Sources:

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.

Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.

Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.